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Ethics and the Lyric: Form, Dialogue, Answerability

Author(s): Mara Scanlon

Source: College Literature, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Winter, 2007), pp. 1-22
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
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Ethics and the Lyric:
Form, Dialogue, Answerability

Mara Scanlon

In 1934-35, in his long essay "Discourse in Mara Scanlon is associate

the Novel," Russian theorist Mikhail professor of English at the
Mikhailovich Bakhtin declared that the
natural and healthy state of language, which is Mary Washington University.
a changing, socially stratified, multivocal clat Her current project is editing a
ter of discourses, is unrepresentable in poetry.
collection of essays on dialogism
Poetry, he said firmly, must be univocal or
monologic: "Contradictions, conflicts and and poetry.

doubts remain in the object, in thoughts, in

living experiences?in short, in the subject
matter?but they do not enter into language
itself. In poetry, even discourse about doubts
must be cast in a discourse that cannot be
doubted" (1981a, 286). This differentiates
poetry from other genres, which may repre
sent the dialogic nature of human interac
tion. Bakhtin says of the dialogic utterance,
"Forming itself in an atmosphere of the
already spoken, the word is at the same time
determined by that which has not yet been
said but which is needed and in fact antici
pated by the answering word. Such is the

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2 College Literature 34.1[Winter 2007]

situation of any living dialogue" (280), a situation particularly representable

for Bakhtin in the novel but impossible within the confines of poetry's sin
gular voice.
On its face Bakhtin s limiting claim about poetry seems to fall some
where between na?ve and outrageous and yet, as several Bakhtinian literary
critics have noted, it has in practice become a working truism. The novel, the
genre Bakhtin heralded as most dialogic, has in fact been the most common
genre to draw Bakhtinian analysis. As both a poetry critic and a great admir
er of Bakhtin, however, I am among a smattering of writers who maintain
that this tacit marginalization of an entire genre is a premature foreclosure on
both poetry and Bakhtin's own literary philosophy. This essay has two pur
poses: to insist again that dialogic poetry is possible, which I will do by trac
ing the dialogism of the word and character-based dialogism in a het
eroglossic lyric by Robert Hayden, foregrounding especially ways in which
the lyric not only allows but even through its form makes possible a
Bakhtinian clash of voices and ideas; and to connect this reading to the
strengthening field of literature and ethics by arguing that a second dialogue,
that between the poem and the answerable reader who attends the text, is
implored, demanded, and even enacted by the lyrics mobilization of voices
and forms, including its use of call-and-response traditions. Studying one
model of a dialogic poem and concentrating especially on its formal ele
ments and what I contend is its self-conscious evocation of the reader's
answerability, I establish the participation of the lyric in the ethical encoun
ters of dialogue.
On its surface, then, this reading appears to simply contradict Bakhtin's
literary theory, in which he understood literature as a site for the representa
tion of actual speech and human exchange. For Bakhtin, the novel is the
genre that accomplishes the subversive, ethically necessary act of decentral
ization, in large part through its incorporation of multiple voices represent
ing clashing ideologies or world views, what Bakhtin calls "heteroglossia" and
Michael Holquist has helpfully described as a "plurality of relations" rather
than just a "cacophony of different voices" (1990, 89). Dialogism and het
eroglossia resist monologism, in which "all fully signifying authorial inter
pretations are sooner or later gathered together in a single speech center and
a single consciousness; all accents are gathered together in a single voice"
(Bakhtin 1984, 204). Through the last several centuries, Bakhtin argues, the
novel's dialogic, heteroglossic form was countered by the high form of poet
ry, which "was accomplishing the task of cultural, national, and political cen
tralization of the verbal-ideological world in the higher official socio-ideo
logical levels" (1981a, 273). Indeed, as even casual students of Bakhtin soon
know, poetry is in his uvre not merely negligible but an active enemy, a

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Mara Scanlon 3

genre closely aligned with authoritative, monologic, oppressive powers that

would squelch all productive, Ufe-giving, ethical dialogic encounters: "Poetic
style," he writes, "is by convention suspended from any mutual interaction
with alien discourse," causing poetry to become dogmatic and conservative
(285), its very rhythms responsible for strangling the internal dialogism of the
living word (298). So impossible is it, in truth, that poetic genres function
other than as "a single intentional whole," without any of language's "strati
fication, to say nothing of its speech diversity, to say nothing of its language
diversity" (297), that Bakhtin asserts, although the poet may be aware "as a
human being surrounded by living hetero- and polyglossia" of the relation
ship that exists between discourses, "this relationship could not find a place
in the poetic style of his work without destroying that style . . . and in the
process turning the poet into a writer of prose" (285). In short, poetry can
not exist, or cannot exist as poetry, and simultaneously employ the ethical
forms of dialogic encounter and exchange.
The stakes for poetry in Bakhtin's generic model seem to me newly
heightened as ethics and/in/of literature has reasserted itself in the last twen
ty years as an active?and, I would say, pressing?field of study (marked, for
example, by the PMLA special edition on ethics in 1999 or the 2004 volume
on Literature and Ethics in Poetics Today).1 Writers like Martha Nussbaum in
Love's Knowledge (1990) have renewed a powerful case for literature as an
appropriate and indeed necessary vehicle for moral philosophy and for ethics
as a vital approach to literature. In addition to ongoing debates about the eth
ical content of certain works of art (debates which tend now to play out
more dramatically in the spheres of art funding, school libraries, and news
paper opinion pages than professional journals), discussions of ethics and lit
erature increasingly have considered the responsibilities of the creator or
writer and of the reader or respondent. Jeffrey T. Nealon believes that such
concerns in literary and cultural studies are prompted by "the decentering of
the subject enacted by the first wave of poststructuralism":"Poststructuralists
of all stripes are increasingly being pressed to engage the question of ethical
agency 'after' the subject . . . [and] have increasingly turned to a dialogic,
intersubjective understanding of ethics" (1997, 129-30).2 Lawrence Buell,
too, describes "interpersonality or interhumanity" as "that to which current
ethical criticism has been strongly attracted ... as the critique of the para
digms of 1970s textuality and 1980s historicism continues to run its course"
(1999, 16). So, for example, Derek Attridge's essay, "Innovation, Literature,
Ethics: Relating to the Other," uses what is essentially a dialogic model of
self-other to theorize the process of creation by which I articulate ideas that
exceed and precede me and yet without me are shapeless or silent?the
inchoate text as other. Creation is then a process of relation in which both

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4 College Literature 34.1 [Winter 2007]

parties are potentially changed. Adam Zachary Newton's Narrative Ethics also
considers not the moral content of a work but ethics as an "intersubjective
relation accomplished through story," "narrative as relationship and human
connectivity" (1995, 7).3 Indeed, foundational works in ethics and literature
like Wayne Booth's 1988 book The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction
revitalize the metaphor of book as friend in arguing for the reader's ethical
obligation to the author and text to "give [one]self generously" to their
reading and not remain passive in that encounter (1988, 135).4The trend
toward figuring the ethics of reading and writing as active dialogue
between self and textual other (or, as Buell discusses, sometimes reaching
to the author behind the text as well [1999, 12]) underscores the need for
thoughtful engagement with Bakhtin, arguably the most important theo
rist of dialogue in the last century.5
But as critics and thinkers turn increasingly to Bakhtin's untiring discus
sions of the dialogic in interpersonal encounters and in literature as repre
sentations of those encounters, his genre theory could be in danger of being
simultaneously codified. Will poetry, then, be seen as at best no longer rele
vant, at worst as an oppressive and unethical genre, wielded only by totali
tarian lyricists? Clearly this proposition is in its own right as absurd as
Bakhtin's own overstatements. But what is the poetry critic and Bakhtinian
scholar to do? Accept that poetry is inherently unethical? Read schizo
phrenically, concealing the love of rhythm, metaphor, line from the part of
the brain that seeks an ethical encounter with the other through the act of
reading?indeed, even accept that those desires must be separate?
Bakhtinian scholars have handled the thinker's foreclosure on poetry in
various ways, from suggesting that "poetry" is a code word for socialist real
ism, literature he could not openly attack in Stalinist Russia, to using
Bakhtin's own footnote in "Discourse in the Novel"?"It goes without say
ing that we continually advance as typical the extremes to which poetic gen
res aspire" (1981a, 287)?as a sufficient apology for what seems otherwise to
be a particularly reductive and stubborn genre theory. It is treated with
humor (as when Gary Saul Morson suggests that Bakhtin's essay "Epic and
Novel" might better be called "The Novel and Every Other Genre" [1981,
13]) or, quite commonly, really, simply ignored if a literary critic wants to
pick up some bit of the Bakhtinian philosophy (e.g., the carnivalesque) and
apply it to a given work. In his recent study Bakhtin and the Social Moorings of
Poetry, Donald Wesling helpfully historicizes the writings, suggesting that
"the poetry-over-prose prejudice was a notably Russian one that still haunts
the minds of critics and writers on that territory, because it is rooted in the
Russian Orthodox trust in the Word" (2003, 21), so Bakhtin took aim at a
distinctly hierarchical set of generic assumptions; David Richter also con

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Mara Scanlon 5

nects Bakhtin's dogmatic genre theory to his response to the Russian

Formalists (1990) .6 Others employ Bakhtin's concept of "novelization,"
which is the dialogicization of a work tending before toward the monolog
ic?something that Bakhtin finally argues is inevitable in a novelistic
epoch?in arguing for the possibility of a nonmonologic poem.7 Although
the argument has been made that "novelization" as a centrifugal linguistic
force need not be tied to the genre of novel, and poetry critics like Patrick
Murphy (1989) in his Bakhtinian reading of several twentieth-century long
poems as "verse novels" have willingly adapted the term "novels in verse" that
Bakhtin used for poems that can not be easily written off as monologic, I must
argue that here too Bakhtin's own theory can make such a stance uncom
fortable. As Bakhtin reminds us, "The speaker is not the biblical Adam, deal
ing only with virgin and still unnamed objects, giving them names for the first
time" (1986, 93). We cannot divest the word "novel" of its generic meaning,
willing it to be a clean signifier of dialogicity alone. Furthermore, the adop
tion of such terminology obscures the intrageneric dialogue that may be
essential to understanding, say, a contemporary epic or sonnet sequence.
Three particularly strong arguments about Bakhtin's limiting and limit
ed theory of poetics involve deconstructing his statements on poetry by con
sidering his broader uvre; reconsidering the singularity of the lyric "I"; and,
if conceding the nondialogic nature of poetry, instead reconsidering the eth
ical nature of monologism. Critics including Ken Hirschkop (1981) use
against Bakhtin's attack on poetry his simultaneous assertions that, after all,
"every sort of discourse" is responsive or dialogic (Bakhtin 1981a, 280); as he
says in Speech Genres, "[h]owever monologic the utterance may be . . . [it] is
filled with dialogic overtones. . . . After all, our thought itself... is born and
shaped in the process of interaction and struggle with others' thought, and
this cannot but be reflected in the forms that verbally express our thought as
well" (1986, 92). Within his larger linguistic theory, then, some argue
Bakhtin's own claims about poetry are virtually impossible.8 On the other
hand, classicist William W Batstone (quoting Bakhtinians Gary Saul Morson
and Caryl Emerson) states flatly that "'Bakhtin knew poetry well, loved it
deeply, lectured on it continually'?but never revised his view of lyricness"
(2002, 100). If lyric must be defined by its singular voice, Batstone argues
persuasively, then we locate its possibility for dialogism in the "dialogism of
the consciousness" (104), recognizing that the pronoun "I" represents a self
that is saturated with and has internalized a plurality of voices and discours
es.9 Lastly, Michael Eskin asserts in his recent article, "Bakhtin on Poetry,"
that, despite Bakhtin's focus on dialogicity and heteroglossia as primary eth
ical modes of utterance, poetry's very tendency toward monologicity may
paradoxically enable its ethical stance for, he argues, the poet must "become

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6 College Literature 34.1 [Winter 2007]

answerable for every element of the act of his poetic utterance" (2000,387).
And while the author of the polyphonic novel may distance himself from any
criticism or subversion of those in power, the poet "has no such alibi. . . .
Bakhtin . . . now points to the 'courage of the poet, who, in his own name,
criticizes the princes,' a possibility unattainable for the polyphonic novelist"
(387). Eskin's careful, interesting reading of Bakhtin offers one possibility to
the otherwise seemingly impossible marriage of ethics and poetry.10 Because
I am persuaded by Nealon and others, however, that dialogue must be con
sidered a, or the, primary contemporary ethical model, I still want to add mine
to the voices claiming the possibility of a dialogic poem.
Finally, I think, to use Bakhtin's theories of dialogicity in discussing a
genre for which he sometimes vehemently denied dialogic potential is not
to contradict or forcibly mutate Bakhtin's own philosophy but to embrace it.
In the last writings of his life, notes jotted in 1974 just months before his
death, Bakhtin clung resolutely to the idea of unfinaUzability, to the always
becoming quality that marks life and literature: "Nothing is absolutely dead:
every meaning will have its homecoming festival. The problem of great time9'
(1986, 170). Bakhtin's fundamental belief in dialogism and change?his
steadfast belief that nothing is steadfast, that nothing is "absolutely dead"?
counters the dichotomy of poetry and novel that is at the heart of his liter
ary studies. In the last century poetic forms?such as the collage poem?
have emerged that boldly challenge the novel's proprietary hold on het
eroglossia.11 Such examples must be placed in dialogue with Bakhtin's own
assertions, which?in great time, as they come into dialogue with the poems
of the twentieth century for which his contemporary models never
account?are challenged and changed. Like Wesling, I say that "we can apply
[Bakhtin's] most powerful ideas to poetic texts, to find them differently dia
logic from the novel, but nonetheless dialogic" (2003,10).
I cast my work, then, as a "homecoming festival" for Bakhtin's concept
of poetry, an exploitation of the potential for other genres inherent in
Bakhtin's theory of the novel. As Morson and Emerson explain, "Stated sim
ply, a work's potential is its capacity to grow in unforeseeable circumstances"
(1990, 286). Critics of Bakhtin have rightly argued that the formal methods
of modern and postmodern literature should have been much less than
"unforeseeable" for their contemporary Bakhtin, and the question of why
Bakhtin chose to concentrate his literary study on previous centuries remains
an interesting and pressing one worthy of further consideration. Whatever his
awareness of twentieth-century literature and reasons for largely ignoring it,
Bakhtin clearly forecloses on the potential for poetry, denying the genre its
right to grow and change in the future. I do not want to make the same fore
closure on Bakhtin's own thought. "Even past meanings," Bakhtin asserts,

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Mara Scanlon 7

"that is, those born in the dialogue of past centuries, can never be stable
(finalized, ended once and for all)?they will always change (be renewed) in
the process of subsequent, future development of the dialogue" (1986,170).
By setting Bakhtin's linguistic and genre theories in dialogue with the poet
ry of the twentieth century and beyond, I see myself fulfilling his potential
as a theorist for poetry as well as the novel. As Bakhtin himself wrote, "The
author is a captive of his epoch, of his own present. Subsequent times liber
ate him from this captivity, and literary scholarship is called upon to assist in
this liberation" (5).
But, of course, even if I find that in great time Bakhtin, as a primary the
orist of dialogism, might admit the possibility even of dialogic poetry, such
presumptions about the genre do not begin and end with Bakhtin; we can
"liberate" Bakhtinian genre theory and still encounter resistance to the idea
of a dialogic poem. Such resistance can be found powerfully, of course, in the
basic assumptions of our twenty-first century students in the classroom, espe
cially when they encounter lyric poetry, which, despite the inadequate but
drilled terminology of "the speaker," they often want to read biographically,
as a personal, confessional, nonpolitical utterance. This is not merely a lack of
readerly sophistication; it resonates powerfully with definitions of lyricness
like that of John Stuart Mill, who wrote that "the peculiarity of poetry
appears to us to lie in the poet's utter unconsciousness of a listener. Poetry is
feeling confessing itself to itself, in moments of solitude" (1976, 12), what
Batstone calls a "self-sufficient isolation" (2002, 101). Indeed, although
Bakhtin himself reserves particular attacks for the "congealed and half-mori
bund" genre of the epic (1981b, 14), in fact, epic is poetry that, in its attempt
to speak to or for a tribe and to establish and reflect communal values, real
ly presumes an ethical response (usually in the form of imitation) in a way
that lyric poetry, at least in the last two hundred years, has traditionally not
been seen to do.12 Such it is, to use an easy example, that Walt Whitman's
epic Song of Myself, despite its titular egotism and the inclusion of biograph
ical details and personal emotions, has been read as a cry for American
democracy and equality and an appreciation for the natural wonder of our
wide nation, while Emily Dickinson's lyrics attacking hierarchy and
hypocrisy and detailing the wonders of nature have been scoured for refer
ences to specific historical objects of desire or read as "miniature" portraits of
her own garden.13
That is to say, a common working concept of the post-Romantic lyric
as a vehicle for self-expression is not finally that far from Bakhtin's model of
the monologic, singular speech act:
The poet must assume a complete single-personed hegemony over his
own language, he must assume equal responsibility for each one of its

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8 College Literature 34.1[Winter 2007]

aspects and subordinate them to his own, and only his own, intentions.
Each word must express the poet's meaning directly and without media
tion. (Bakhtin 1981a, 297)

As James William Johnson succinctly puts it in The New Princeton Encyclopedia

of Poetry and Poetics, emphasizing the self-expressive qualities of lyric, "The
most subjective or 'internal' strain of modern lyric poetry is the Lyric of
Emotion or Feeling. It is this type which has in the modern world become
synonymous with 'poetry'" (1993,721). In his recent study Poetry As Survival,
poet Gregory Orr distinguishes the "personal lyric" of the last 175 years from
the "social" and "sacred" lyric traditions that were more common in other
times. Though he takes care to do so, his working concept of lyric, is, I think,
common in its focus on interiority, emotion, and the first-person utterance:
We are creatures whose volatile inner lives are both mysterious to us and
beyond our control. How to respond to the strangeness and unpredictabil
ity of our own emotional being? One important answer to this question is
the personal lyric, the "I" poem dramatizing inner and outer experience. .
. . [Our] survival begins when we "translate" our crisis into language?
where we give it symbolic expression as an unfolding drama of self and the
forces that assail it. (Orr 2002, 4)

Indeed, in The Columbia History of American Poetry, Orr identifies the "post
confessional lyric," a genre which "has come into its own in the second half
of the twentieth century" in which "[m]any of the best and strongest
American poems" are written, as "a variant on the autobiographical dramat
ic lyric," where speech "emanates out from ... [the] self" (1993, 650). Nobel
winner Seamus Heaney also describes the necessity of the poet's finding his
authorial voice, one which is not far in intonation, accent, and rhythm from
"the poet's natural voice, the voice that he hears as the ideal speaker of the
lines he is making up" (2003, 1098). Collapsing even the pretense of "the
speaker," Heaney draws on a naturalized, singular concept of poetic voice
in his discussion of lyric, one that I suggest here even anecdotally is rela
tively widespread.
Therefore, while my work challenges Bakhtin's limiting models of the
poem, it simultaneously finds his theories enormously provocative and help
ful in providing a paradigm and terminology for discussing alternatives to the
implicit model of lyric as singular and monologic, in suggesting ways that we
might see the lyric representing and participating in dialogic exchange.
Which brings me to this point: if dialogue is a primary mode of ethical rela
tion and I want to reserve the possibility that poetry may also be an ethical
genre in that mode, then the question that I ask is: what might a dialogic
poem look like? What does it ask of us?

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Mara Scanlon 9

As I suggested briefly above, the heterogjossia of longer poems and twen

tieth-century epics commonly known as collage texts, such as Ezra Pound's
Cantos or T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, provide one example. These long poems
and others like them show, of course, modernist fragmentation and radical
juxtaposition at its most intense, the Unes and stanzas themselves composed
of dense quotation from multiple sources in numerous languages: newspaper,
popular song, personal conversation and letters of the poet, Shakespeare's
plays, economic treatises, history texts, myth. Although one can debate
unceasingly whether these long poems are heteroglossic (truly admitting dif
ferent world views) or simply multivocal?that is, for instance, if Eliot's alter
nate title "He Do the Police in Different Voices" suggests finally one speaker
and intention, or if Pound's ultimately unsuccessful attempts to wrest control
over his collage text and use it for his own economic, cultural, and political
ends work to smother the heteroglossic tendencies of the collage?they cer
tainly admit at least the possibility of dialogic illumination within the poem.14
While collage poetry itself shows the possibility of poetic internal dialo
gism?that is, the interplay of and tensions between voices in a multivocal
text?it does not necessarily engage more than any other kind of poem in
dialogic exchange with the reader. I am using here, then, two concepts of dial
ogism, ethics, and literature simultaneously. The first is the concept of the
poem's being heteroglossic and, within the dialogic play of those voices, mak
ing meaning. For Bakhtin, this is ethical representation of the stratified lan
guages and voices of the world. The second type I invoke is the dialogue
between the reader and the text that results in an ethical responsibility for the
reader as she responds to the poem, an accountability that Bakhtin calls
answerability: "I have to answer with my own life," he elucidates, "for what I
have experienced and understood in art, so that everything I have experi
enced and understood would not remain ineffectual in my life" (1990,1). As
Bakhtin discusses throughout Speech Genres, the reader is responsible, ethical
ly, for understanding art and literature as part of life, for using, responding to,
actively rejecting, nuancing, meditating on, and/or applying the lessons of art
to daily living. "The work," he says of literary pieces, "like the rejoinder in
dialogue, is oriented toward the response of the other (others), toward his
active responsive understanding, which can assume various forms" (1986,
75). This latter sense of dialogue is aligned with quite diverse models of read
ing and writing such as that by Booth or Attridge.
What interests me in my consideration of the ethical lyric is what for
mal shapes the lyric might assume if it is self-conscious about a dialogic
demand upon the reader rather than being simply something, to use Mill's
term, "overheard"?essentially, willfully private. So I turn now to a reading
of a lyric poem that is heteroglossic and an example of the tensions and

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10 College Literature 34.1 [Winter 2007]

meanings created by the internal dialogism of a text, and that also insists
upon the reader's ethical dialogue with the poem. It is by Robert Hayden
(1913-1980), an African American poet whose work is critically underexam
ined, as it was also marginalized by various political forces during his life
time.15 The lyric is "Night, Death, Mississippi," a stunning poem first includ
ed in Hay den's Selected Poems in 1966. Through the formal strategies of his
dialogic lyric, Hayden insists on the reader's active, ethical relating, what
Lawrence Buell calls "conscienceful listening," if listening is understood as
a reciprocal, creative process (1999, 12). The title of Haydens haunting
poem "Night, Death, Mississippi" signals at once its setting and theme. It is
a lynching poem, articulating a horror that much more intense for being
not only real but common in the lives of African American men in peri
ods of the last century.
Haydens poems frequently employ persona, a technique like dramatic
monologue that could also be productively examined, for example, for the
implicit dialogic tension between the lyric poet's formal, syntactic, and other
control and the personae's "voice" (or, to use the terminology of Herbert
Tucker's very interesting essay on Browning's "My Last Duchess," the "choral
dissolution that lurks in lyric voice" [1985,235]). Hayden also, in poems such
as the modernist "Middle Passage," uses the techniques of multivocal collage
texts, like those of Pound and Eliot discussed above, in a shorter poetic form.
But the lyric "Night, Death, Mississippi" is of particular interest in that it
gives voice to at least four or five distinct speakers without the intense frag
mentation and juxtaposition frequent in collage, adhering to a more unified
form frequently seen as typical of lyric poems. Furthermore, though
Hayden s poetry is best known for its attempts to animate black artists, lead
ers, or historical figures, at least three of the poem's major voices appear to
be those of white Mississippians?indeed, and more to the point, of racists.
The lyric is divided into two sections, the first comprised of six quatrains and
the second of three quatrains with italicized single lines interspersed. The
major voices of the first section are those of an omniscient narrator and an
old white man. The voices of the second section are those of the narrator
(minimally here), the older man's son Boy, Boy's wife, and the speaker(s) of
the italicized Unes, whose identity I will discuss later in more detail.
On a simple level, then, Hayden's poem is multivocalic because it con
tains several speakers and voices, and the characters speak to one another and
to the reader/listener. But to be truly dialogic, heteroglossic, in Bakhtin's
terms, the poem must also articulate multiple worldviews, more than one
ideology. A work may have several speakers, in other words, but if they all
mouth one doctrine, it is not heteroglossic or dialogic. Hayden's lyric is dia
logic because, on several levels, the poem performs an exchange between

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Mara Scanlon il

noncoincidental, sometimes clashing ideologies, a point I will discuss in more

detail when considering the italicized Unes. But throughout the lyric some
times even a single utterance can speak doubly as it resonates with other
voices in the poem and within itself (and acts as what Bakhtin might call a
"double-voiced word"). Take, for instance, the old man's description in part
I of his former violence, the castration of a black man: "Unbucked that one
then / and him squealing bloody Jesus / as we cut it off" (1985,11.14-16). It
is the second line here that interests me. Presumably the phrase "bloody
Jesus" is a crudity when the Klansman uses it, a phrase that means, in much
less evocative language, "a lot." But in the next section, in the first of the three
italicized lines that stand alone, the complex, mournful voice cries, " O Jesus
burning on the lily cross99 (1. 29). Calling upon the crucified Christ and simul
taneously acting in dialogue with the prior utterance, the second voice
potentially redeems the curse "bloody Jesus" as a prayer. At the moment of
violence, the victim is not "squealing," as one might say otherwise, like hell,
like a terrified animal, but is holy, in prayer, a supplicant. Furthermore, the
victim is himself at that moment bloody, very probably soon murdered. As it
is illuminated in the dialogue between the two lines, when the driving,
enjambed line "and him squealing bloody Jesus" stands alone, its half-mean
ing, to borrow the terminology of Mary Kinzie, can be read as equating
"him" with "bloody Jesus" through compressed apposition, foregrounding
the crucified Christ rather than the crude oath.16 Describing Jesus' cross as
"burning9 of course also creates a parallel between the lynched man and Jesus
by evoking an image of a burning Klan cross, perhaps even potentially
redeeming that image. Though Hayden need never enter the poem to
renounce the old man's racism, then, the dialogic work made possible in part
by the poem's form, in the responsive interaction of different voices, can ven
erate the African American victim, the innocent sufferer and perhaps even
blessed martyr. Though Bakhtin writes that for the "poetic word ... it is
impossible under any conditions or at any time to imagine a trope ... being
unfolded into the two exchanges of a dialogue, that is, two meanings parceled
out between two separate voices" (1981a, 327-28), Hayden's use of "Jesus"
indeed sounds dialogically within the lyric, a double-voiced word illuminat
ed by the two utterances'juxtaposition.
The tension between the voices of the old man and the italicized anony
mous speaker foregrounds one of the ways in which Hayden's poem is clear
ly self-conscious about or even thematizes the status of "Night, Death,
Mississippi" as a dialogic lyric, and that is its polyphony. Most obvious is the
fact that Hayden, an African American man deeply devoted to causes of
social justice, grants unique freedom of speech to his characters, who speak
without explicit rebuttal, though their words and worldviews can be noth

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12 College Literature 34.1 [Winter 2007]

ing but repellant to him. Bakhtin explores polyphony of this type most clear
ly in his work Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, in which he explains of the
novelist Dostoevsky, his ultimate test case for polyphony, "The character is
treated as ideologically authoritative and independent; he is perceived as the
author of a fully weighted ideological conception of his own_[T]he direct
and fully weighted signifying power of the characters' words destroys the
monologic plane of the novel" (1984, 5). In a polyphonic novel, Bakhtin
argues that characters are 'free people, capable of standing alongside their cre
ator, capable of not agreeing with him and even of rebelling against him" (5
6). The complexity of the many voices in Hayden's poem complicates any
easy categorization of it as, say, a persona poem, dramatic monologue (though
"dramatic dialogue" offers interesting possibilities), or what Richter discusses
as a "mask lyric," in which the authorial self is projected into an other who may
be distant in time and space but is nonetheless consistent (1990, 23).The free
speech and fullness granted these characters, however odious to Hayden him
self, is better understood as a poetic mobilization of polyphony, especially as the
voices in the poem interact dialogically themselves.
A second example of self-conscious dialogism is the explicit commen
tary within the poem about human understanding; relating with fervor the
excitement of the lynching from which he has just returned, Boy says:
Christ, it was better

than hunting bear

which don't know why
you want him dead. (Hayden 11. 30-33)

Unlike the bear (which nevertheless earns the pronoun "him," the animal
and human blurred further by this choice), the black man knows why they
want him dead?as we know. Within the poem human understanding
becomes a site of absolute horror (the black man's anticipatory fear, the dev
astating knowledge of hatred). And it is also a site of resistance, since the
man's knowing "why / you want him dead" is a simultaneous subversion of
the dehumanization that allows such violence against him. The lines barely
contain the paradoxical tension; perhaps, in truth, it springs forth in the sor
rowful voice that breaks out of the tight quatrain immediately following this:
"O night, rawhead and bloodybones night9' (1. 40), a powerful, keening line that
Hayden insistently foregrounds by its placement on the page, its italics, its
powerfully defamiliarized compound words, and the fact that it has as many
as seven stresses in its mere nine syllables. The dialogism of these lines?the
paradox at the heart of racist violence that establishes human knowledge or
understanding as the ultimate suffering and as the capability that undercuts
the sadist's fundamental ideology; the articulation of hatred and then howl

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Mara Scanlon 13

ing protest that responds to it?also demands that the reader, too, enter that
dialogue. If Boy's desire to see the black man as inhuman and irrevocably
other is undercut by his own sadistic pleasure in the mental anguish of his
victim, then likewise my or our own desire (if we are readers to whom Boy's
prejudice and violence are repugnant) to see Boy himself in the same terms
is also subverted by the central importance Hayden gives to human under
standing. The lynched man is not finally utterly unlike Boy Terrifyingly, Boy
is not finally utterly unlike us.
Here, of course, I begin to slide into a consideration of the dialogue
between reader and text and the answerability it commands. No text,
Bakhtin might argue, is complete without its reader: "The event of the life
of the text, that is, its true essence, always develops on the boundary between two
consciousnesses, two subjects99 (1986, 106). Hayden's poem is particularly inter
esting for what I read as its specific thematization and provocation of the
reader's dialogic response. I find several points of entry for the reader in
Hayden's multivocal lyric, points which we may even want to bypass because
of the nature of what we see and feel when we enter. First is the immedia
cy of the colloquial dialogue, the mimesis over diegesis that invites us to lis
ten or participate. In the first movement of the lyric, for instance, the old man
has no clearly positioned listener within the poem. He himself "limp [s] to the
porch to listen" (1985,1.7), straining to decipher the pained cry of the lynch
ing's brutalized victim from that of a wild bird: "A quavering cry. Screech
owl? / Or one of them" (11.1-2)? But when he speaks, it only highlights the
fact that, though he aches for the mob violence with a "feverQ" likened to
sexual desire (1.20), he waits on the porch alone. "Be there with Boy and the
rest / if I was well again" (11. 9-10), he says, and plans what he will do when
Boy returns again:
Have us a bottle,
Boy and me?
he's earned him a bottle?
when he gets home. (Hayden 1985,11. 21-24)

Arguably, then, we readers are his primary listeners, those to whom he directs
his speech.
Michael Dean discusses the ambiguity of the speech acts in this section
of "Night, Death, Mississippi" in his close reading of the lyric. He reads, for
instance, the fines "Time was. A cry? / A cry all right" (Hayden 1985,11.17
18) as opening in the old Klansman's voice but possibly sliding in line 18 into
"the anguished voice of the narrator confirming the suffering of the Klan's
present victim while alluding to more widespread suffering, that is, the suf
fering endured on the victim's behalf by people of compassion everywhere"

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14 College Literature 34.1 [Winter 2007]

(Dean 1986, 4).17The ambiguity that interests Dean is a result of Hayden's

use of free indirect discourse, a formal choice associated much more strong
ly with modernist novels than with poetry. We slide into and out of the old
man's voice without traditional markers such as "he said" or quotation
marks?indeed, the possibility exists that his words may even be thoughts,
internalized. But we readers overhear, perhaps most uncomfortably if the
words are internal since then we are also within "the old man in his reek / and
gauntness" (Hayden 1985, 11. 3-4), unable to fully deny our own involve
ment.18 While Dean sees in the strategy a distancing mechanism for a narra
tor, to me the use of free indirect discourse actually radically undermines any
attempt for the narrator or readers to distance themselves from the old man's
racism and savagery.Where he begins and we and the narrator end is not pre
cise?we are with him, possibly in him, possibly are him, a strategy of
Hayden's that evokes strong fear, repulsion, fascination, any number of
responses that mark the reader's dialogic engagement with the poem.
The reader's involvement and even culpability is more powerful in the
lyric's second part, whose first two quatrains, in Boy's voice, are an intimate
reiteration within the family home of the racist violence of which he has just
been part:
Then we beat them, he said,
beat them till our arms was tired

and the big old chains

messy and red. (Hayden 1985,11. 25-28)

The enunciation of violence is not itself innocent. As I have just argued, in the
lyric's first section, Hayden manipulates the reader's positioning through the
use of free indirect discourse, omitting all speech tags. Here he uses a differ
ent strategy. Interestingly, in the much shorter second section Hayden uses
speech tags twice ("he said," "she said" [11. 25, 38]), each time at a line's end
for extra emphasis. Also unlike the first section, where a narrative voice pro
vides description (e.g., "He hawks and spits" [1. 19]), these two speech tags
comprise the entirety of the narrator's contribution to part II, so the reader
is thrust more forcefully, without mediation, into the characters' utterances.
And in a poem with no other notable end rhymes, Hayden concludes the
three quatrains of part II in "Night, Death, Mississippi" with the strong
rhymes "red," "dead," and "said." The color of blood (red), the murdered
man's loss of life (dead), and speech (said) are aligned closely by the poetic
strategy, subtly reminding us both of the potential power of a poem, of what
is said, and of our own closeness to the violent act. We may not have com
mitted physical murder, but we are a part of the dialogic speech acts sur
rounding that killing.

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Mara Scanlon 15

Our positioning, as readers, within the family's home and even as part of
the family is accomplished most clearly in the final stanza's direct address to
"you kids" by the poem's female voice:
You kids fetch Paw
some water now so's he
can wash that blood

off him, she said. (Hayden 1985,11. 35-38)

Because the kids are silent or disembodied?in fact, we have no knowledge

of their presence or even existence until these final words?the poem's sud
den switch to a second-person address is particularly surprising or, I would
say, compelling. For this stanza, the work of William Waters on the "du"
address of Rilke helpfully theorizes the effect of the sudden introduction of
the second-person address. As Waters writes about the lyric "you" in his
work, it is a pronoun which "tends to hail; it calls everyone and everything
by their inmost name. . . . One can read unidentified T or 'she' with com
paratively small concern, but the summons of unidentified'you' restlessly tugs
at us, begging identification" (1996,130). Waters s choice of the term "iden
tification" is deliberate?not only do we wish to ascertain an identity for the
"you," but we may ourselves identify with it. The reader may feel that she, as
Waters writes, "(implausible as it may be) ... is the poem's intended
addressee" (130). In Hayden's lyric, where the "kids" have no voices, no phys
icality, no prior place in the poem until this final quatrain, we readers may
feel that we can or must take the children's places through the direct address.
We are asked to be the means by which Paw may cleanse himself like Pontius
Pilate after/for his bloody deed. Interestingly, Hayden casts the readers
through this direct "you" address as "kids," which could imply a certain level
of naivete or innocence. And yet, as fellow recipients of Boy's tale, the kids?
we kids?are, as I argued above about the reader more generally, still impli
cated by listening, which is an active rather than a passive role. Even if we or
the kids have been innocents, the speech acts have marked us with violence
in a way not easily washed away. Perhaps our affiliation with the kids fore
grounds our position as initiates into the racism and violence?and as those
on whom the future rests. The question becomes, as Waters writes in lan
guage that figures powerfully the question I wish to pose, "How will we
stand" (130)?19 Hayden's dialogic lyric places the reader at the moment of
ethical decision. Will we or will we not fetch that water?
The lyric's dialogism is thus manifesting in the two different forms I dis
cussed above. The first is the internal dialogism of the poem's voices and
words, the tense interplay between the racist ideology or worldview that is
given free expression and the resistance to that racism that subverts it or cries

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16 College Literature 34.1 [Winter 2007]

out against it. The second is a dialogic relationship to the reader herself; that
is, I argue that Hayden's formal choices?especially the use of free indirect
discourse, the second-person address and, as I will discuss now in more detail,
the unassigned lament of part II?refuse to allow the reader a distance from
the poem from which she may comfortably deny culpability or responsibil
ity. Hayden's poem illustrates the situation of dialogue about which Bakhtin
writes that "[t]he word ... is directly, blatantly, oriented toward a future
answer-word: it provokes an answer, anticipates it and structures itself in the
answer's direction" (1981a, 280).The reader's dialogic response is asked by the
poem itself, I believe, to go beyond the cognitive acts of reading and com
prehending?that is, the ongoing dialogue between writer, text, and reader
by which meaning is constructed. It requests or requires an ethical stance,
answerability. As Nealon states plainly of the dialogic, "Perhaps ethical
responsibility is first and foremost the ability to respond" (1997,131).
A striking thing about Hayden's heteroglossic lyric is that it prompts or
may even perform the reader's answerability through the voice that has the
last word in the poetic text?the truly disembodied, prayerful, soulful refrain
in italics. The utterances of this voice occupy only three of the 39 lines in the
poem, but by their elevated poetic quality (especially in comparison to the
colloquial speech of the other speakers), their length (nine or ten syllables in
a poem where no other line is longer than seven and most are closer to five),
their italicization, and their freedom from the otherwise regular quatrain
form, they speak powerfully:" O Jesus burning on the lily cross. ... O night, raw
head and bloodybones night. ... O night betrayed by darkness not its own99 (11. 29,
34, 39). A question haunts the lyric: whose voice is it? Most obviously, of
course, this is the voice of the beaten, mutilated, or murdered African
American man, who squeals "bloody Jesus," we are told, but here pleads and
mourns most sorrowfully, a connection that my close reading above supports.
Without an articulate voice in the racist's narrative or an authoritative one in
society, the violated man's voice floats hauntingly within the poem's final
movement, unanchored but given enormous power and eloquence.
Interestingly, as an African American poet writing about violent racism,
Hayden seems to be drawing on African American traditions of call and
response, a form insisting on interaction or dialogue, in his use of the itali
cized voice as a counterpoint to the white speakers' conversation. This is
important not only for its validation of black forms of discourse, prayer, or
song as they erupt into and disrupt the racists' narrative but also because it
increases the probability that the keening voice is not simply that of the
lynched man but of a wider community, words spoken in a tradition both
formal and ideological. The form of the poem invites us to hear those words
as more than a singular prayerful cry?it is surely too communal mourning,

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Mara Scanion 17

humanity's voice or maybe God's, the poet's, the readers', answering mighti
ly the narrative of the old man and his son. In its intense beauty and sorrow,
it prompts us not to betray, not to cleanse Paw. As seen on the page, the voice
enacts, performs, and comments upon our response?its letters are shivery
with italics, ungrounded without punctuation, external to the poem but inti
mately part of it, powerful. The necessary horror of the voice is our own hor
ror. Hayden has insisted on the humanity of the lynched man by comment
ing upon his human understanding.Yet, socially and politically, we know, the
lynched man has no authority. As his voice through that call and response
potentially fuses with the reader's "voice," the performance of an ethical rela
tion to the other-poem even within that poem, we are asked to bear witness,
to mourn where he cannot. As I discuss the formal mastery of Hayden's pow
erful poem and the ethics of form, I am reminded of something Booth said of
the novelist D. H. Lawrence: "It is a mistake ... to talk of Lawrence's delib
erately blurred handling of point of view as 'simply' a technical innovation:
it is a powerful ethical intervention" (1988, 450).
Hayden's poem ends without a punctuation mark, refusing easy closure.
If the dialogic nature of the poem not only sets its own voices in play but
also, as I would argue, insists that the reader too must answer to and for it,
then it is not yet complete, unwilling to be finalized. The italicized voice
prompts or performs our first response?prayer, mourning, despair ?and its
last words call for more.The poem's final word is "own": "O night betrayed by
darkness not its own!9 If the treacherous darkness is not of the night, not of
nature, but human, we must own it. We must claim ownership of the poem
and answer. As Bakhtin says, "For the word (and, consequently, for a human
being) there is nothing more terrible than a lack of response" (1986,127).
Critic John S. Wright says of Hayden's portraits of heroic figures that
they portray "the possibilities for heroic action in the face of even the most
murderous and dispiriting forces" (1982, 907). Does Hayden ask less of the
reader? His lyric insists that we read ethically, dialogically, with answerability.
And the subject of his poem forces us to confront a sociopolitical situation,
to ask, is this right? can I change it? Nussbaum has written that literary the
ory must engage with the question, "How should one live?" (1990, 23). In
the face of the racism and violence of Hayden's lyric, we must respond to
"Night, Death, Mississippi," a lyric that radically challenges prevalent and
limiting mischaracterizations of the genre, as if we are the only ones who
fully hear and understand it (we might say the Bakhtinian superaddressees)
and as if a life depended on it?indeed, as if it were our own.
Hayden's poem, with a subject so very abhorrent as lynching, provides a
test case for the dialogic lyric and its participation in the forms and discourses
of ethics that is both powerful and deceptively simple. As I anticipate my own

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18 College Literature 34.1 [Winter 2007]

reader, I actively hope and even expect that I address those whose outrage at
racial violence is profound. And so the necessary answerability of the reader
to a poem that voices prejudice and violence seems self-evident, whatever
emotional, pedagogic, or sociopolitical form that answer takes. But "Night,
Death, Mississippi" is a fertile site for this exploration not only because its
content is provocative but because its formal methods?such as employing
free indirect discourse and second person address; engaging with a call-and
response tradition; unfastening the italicized voice from the quatrains,
rhythms, and diction of the overall poem; clearly distancing authorial from
lyric speaker, to name only some?suggest, through a lyric self-conscious
about its dialogism, poetic strategies worthy of much further probing and
exploration as we continue to struggle with the place of poetry in Bakhtin's
theory and the ethical exchanges of our world.


1 For a clear and persuasive critical-historical positioning of the contemporary

interest in Ethics and Literature, see Michael Eskin's "Introduction: The Double
'Turn' to Ethics and Literature?" (2004).
2 Nealon's essay is a persuasive and articulate argument for dialogue as the most
important contemporary model for ethical relations and is also a helpful overview of
the dialogic theories of*Bakhtin and Emmanual Levinas. In Canons and Consequences:
Reflections on the Ethical Force of Imaginative Ideals, Charles Altieri also writes that post
structuralist theory overturned humanism for a focus on textuality and historicity,
but found itself without sufficient means to reckon with how texts might serve social
ends (1990).
3 Newton, like Bakhtin, sees narrative and story as the best vehicle for this eth
ical relationship.
4 Nussbaum also suggests in Love's Knowledge that one's relationship to a liter
ary work is a kind of friendship, a voluntary relation.
5 Emmanuel Levinas emerges, as Nealon and others have argued, as the other
primary theorist of dialogue. Because the intention of my work is double?to
employ Bakhtinian theories of dialogue in reading poetry and to use that poetry to
then counter Bakhtin's literary theory?his writing has been more fundamental to
my work than the very rich philosophy of Levinas.
6 Wesling also carefully traces lesser-known and more positive Bakhtinian refer
ences to poetry, including a reading of the clash of discourses in the Pushkin poem
"Parting" (2003, 22 and 98).The same example is discussed by Richter in his strong
essay "Dialogism and Poetry." Augusto Ponzio asserts briefly and reductively that
Bakhtin's identification of "the dialogic dialectic between the author's context and
that of the two protagonists" in this early work on the Pushkin lyric "contradicts.. .
the mistaken interpretation that Bakhtin did not sufficiently consider the lyrical
genre" (2000, 25).

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Mara Scanlon 19

7 See, for example, Bakhtin's essay "Epic and Novel: Toward a Methodology for
the Study of the Novel."
8 Hirschkop provides provocative and insightful commentary on this seeming
contradiction, arguing that we must see monologism as itself a strategy of response,
one which ignores or restricts its opposite (1981, 75). Like Hirschkop, I have ques
tioned Bakhtin's faith in the necessarily freeing nature of dialogue, its ability to defeat
or transcend oppression and inequality. See also Scanlon (2000), and Fogel (1989)
See also Dana Polan (1989) on the implications for poetry of the underlying dialo
gism of all language.
9 See also Marianne and Michael Shapiro on the dialogic "I" for whom the
superaddressee is another phase of the self (1992).
10 Like Wesling, Eskin believes that scholars have overprivileged Bakhtin's
attacks on monologic poetry and tended to ignore the few places where he
acknowledges the "historical facticity of poetry which does not reduce its 'verbal
material to a common denominator'" (2000, 382).
11 In fact, poetry has existed throughout the ages that does so, but certainly it is
an essential and clear element of poetry from Modernism onward. In their essay
"Dialogism and the Lyric Addressee" (1992), for instance, Shapiro and Shapiro
deeply engage Bakhtinian theory in discussing traditions such as the Japanese renga
and troubadour poetry.
12 Though Herbert Tucker, in his study of the dramatic monologue, does not
explicitly consider the ethics of the form he examines, his work provides an inter
esting example of a reexaminaci?n of the private, overheard lyric.
13 Such readings of Whitman and Dickinson also expose, of course, the gen
dered tendencies of literary criticism and the powerful gendering of genre.
14 Clearly, the more pressing debate about Pound's text and its Fascist, anti
Semitic passages in particular is, if it is heteroglossic, what challenge does it pose to
Bakhtin's seemingly unshakeable belief in the subversive, equalizing power of het
eroglossia? Or does Pound's famed inability to "make it cohere" suggest that
Bakhtinian heteroglossic forces in fact undermine the potentially oppressive agenda
of Pound's epic?
15 Though Hayden accrued numerous honors, including four honorary doctor
ates, twice acting as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (1976-77 and
1977-78), and fellowship in the Academy of American Poets, his reputation was
severely diminished when he came under attack by Black Arts and black nationalist
advocates for, among other things, his refusal to be categorized as a "black poet" and
the unifying humanism of his Baha'i faith. For a fuller discussion of Hayden's poet
ic achievement and career, see PontheollaT.William or Fred Fetrow.
16 Kinzie argues of enjambed lines that the "radical splitting apart of phrases [by
line] creates provisional meanings in the orphaned lines.These momentary meanings
may counteract or clash with the meaning of the sentence?once the sentence has
been pieced back together" (1999,59). Kinzie's helpful discussion of half-meaning is
worth further examination as another formal poetic method that allows for internal

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20 College Literature 34.1[Winter 2007]

17 Dean's interest is in reading the poem as a ballad, which admits several speak
ers and allows the narrator to "distance himself from the characters and events of the
ballad; that is, the narrator stands back and makes comments that are, at the same
time, both calm and emotional" (1986, 2). Obviously my argument about the abili
ty to distance the voices or one's own response from the text asserts instead that such
detachment is impossible because of the lyric's dialogism.
18 I deliberately use Mill's concept of "overhearing" here, in which the lyric is
so private that the reader/listener can only be at a distance to it, a fugitive eaves
dropper. Instead, I argue that the way in which Hayden positions us to overhear the
old Klansman insists on our intimacy, our insideness, to the poem.
19 Waters is also deeply concerned about answerability to the poem, about "the
written word's demand for encounter, for real relationship,, presence, even intimacy"
(1996, 147), saying of the "you" address, "I wish to contend that this positioning of
ourselves as readers is a question of responsiveness, of conduct, even of obligation"
(130). I see my interest in heteroglossic, dialogic lyric and answerability as being
highly compatible with Waters' work on lyric, for which I have great respect. See also
Sara Guyer's excellent reconsideration of apostrophe, as in her essay "Wordsworthian
Wakefulness," which engages, among other theories, Barbara Johnson's work on
apostrophe as a ventriloquism that animates the mute addressee and Levinas's writ
ings on vigilance and witness in reading Wordsworth's sonnets "To Sleep."

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